Netflix takes swings when it decides to adapt popular animation. This past year saw their boldness pay off with a live action take on the nearly endless One Piece manga and anime series from Japan. In 2021, things did not work out as well when the streaming service attempted to remount Cowboy Bebop (see also the Death Note feature film). Nevertheless, hope springs eternal with every animated series they try to recreate with in-person actors, purpose-built sets, and ambitious plans. That hope extends to one of its biggest swings in the live-action adaptation realm, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The Nickelodeon animated series created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko is beloved by a generation of viewers — and those brave enough to give it a try after witnessing the failure of M. Night Shyamalan’s own live-action feature film The Last Airbender. It is epic in scope and surprisingly sophisticated, with deeply drawn characters who evolve across its three seasons. It also has the bandwidth to be funny and experimental.
Of course, all of those things mean the hope of this new AtLA is tempered with some trepidation among the faithful who fondly remember the waterbending scroll or Toph’s realization that she could bend something other than earth.
But what does that mean for someone coming fresh to the series and its concepts? Let’s take a look at everything we know about Avatar: The Last Airbender and see if it will expand the fanbase or leave those already invested waiting for the next animated installment.
(Photo by Robert Falconer/Netflix)
In a world where martial artists can also control one of the four elements — an ability known as “bending” — balance and harmony is generally maintained by the Avatar. Reincarnated as a new person every generation or so, the Avatar can control all of the elements and has access to an additional spiritual power. One hundred years before AtLA begins, the latest Avatar, an Airbender named Aang, goes missing. At almost the same time, the Fire Nation attacks the domains of water, air, and earth, starting a century of war and conflict.
Sometime later, two children from the Southern Water Tribe discover Aang frozen in a block of ice. Thawing him out, the trio — along with Aang’s sky bison, Appa, and a winged lemur called Momo — set off to complete Aang’s training as the Avatar and to stop the Fire Lord Ozai from conquering the world.
(Photo by Netflix)
Those are the broadest strokes of the story, of course, as relationships, morality, spirituality, fighting totalitarian regimes, and personal growth (among other themes) are also explored. Unlikely heroes emerge and true evil makes itself known. Seeming detours prove to be vital to Aang’s journey and at least one episode leaves Aang behind entirely to focus on a very special character.
Also, some cabbages maybe harmed along the way.
The first season of Netflix’s AtLA adaptation takes its cues from the animated series’ first season, a collection of episodes known as “Book One: Water.” It takes Aang and his companions from the Southern Water Tribe to the domain of the Air Nomads, the Earth Kingdom, and, finally, to the far north, where key events are set in motion and one character’s life is utterly altered. Not every moment from that season will be recreated, though, and some will be remixed to fit a more consciously dramatic and serialized tone.
(Photo by Netflix)
As mentioned above, the settings are as varied as the ice drifts of the Southern Water Tribe to the sky-high temples of the Air Nomads. Along the way, the trio and their animal friends will also visit the tropical island home of Kyoshi, an Avatar who lived several generations before Aang, and the kingdom of Omashu. Based on the trailer and photos Netflix has released so far, most of the environs will maintain a visual consistency with the animated series if, perhaps, a little more muted in its color palette. Live action is rarely as vibrant as animation, after all.
But the trade-off is getting to see Kyoshi Island and Omashu in a slightly more realistic light.
Along the way, though, new viewers will encounter a world inspired by East Asian and Indigenous Arctic cultures. While never a one-for-one with, say, Japan, the styles are striking and breathe a lot of life into the villages the heroes visit as they travel north.
(Photo by Robert Falconer/Netflix)
As with the setting, the cast of AtLA is diverse. Led by a trio of relative unknowns, it also pools together a surprisingly deep and rich ensemble of key players and guest actors.
Gordon Cormier stars as Aang. Despite his responsibilities, he is only 12-years-old when the series begins and, naturally enough, acts like it. But a certain care-free disposition masks a dawning understanding of his role in the world.
Joining him on the journey are Kiawentiio as Katara and Ian Ousley as Sokka — siblings from the Southern Water Tribe who discover Aang in the ice. The former is 14 and the tribe’s last waterbender. The latter, age 16, cannot bend, but finds ways to be useful… eventually. Okay, that’s not completely fair, as Sokka has skills, a boomerang, and a wit or two.
(Photo by Netflix)
Ever on their trail are a trio from the Fire Nation and their forces. Dallas Liu plays Prince Zuko, Ozai’s son and the heir to the Fire Nation. Although, as the tale begins, he has been exiled and pursues Aang, believing the successful capture of the Avatar will return him to his father’s good graces. Ever trying to guide Zuko is his uncle, General Iroh, played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee of The Mandalorian and Star Wars: Ahsoka. The character is one of the most beloved in the original animated series (where he was initially voiced by the legendary Mako), but we won’t spoil why fans adopted him into their hearts.
Zuko’s attempts to obtain Aang are complicated by Ken Leung’s Commander Zhao, a Fire Nation general with his own ambitions. The Fire Nation is also represented in the series by Daniel Dae Kim as Ozai; Elizabeth Yu as his daughter, Princess Azula; Momona Tamada as Ty Lee, a friend of Azula’s with the unique ability to block the chi of others; and Thalia Tran as Mai, another of Azula’s circle who may become important to Zuko at some point in the future.
(Photo by Netflix)
Along the way, Aang and his compatriots will encounter the likes of Suki (Maria Zhang), leader of the Kyoshi Warriors; Yukari (Tamlyn Tomita), mayor of Kyoshi Island and Suki’s mother; King Bumi (Utkarsh Ambudkar) of Omashu, who has an interesting connection to Aang; Princess Yue (Amber Midthunder) of the Northern Water Tribe; Pakku (A Martinez), a waterbender from the Northern Water Tribe; Koh the Face Stealer (George Takei) a spirit with a collection of faces; The Mechanist (Danny Pudi) of the Earth Kingdom; and, of course, the Cabbage Merchant (James Sie, who also voiced the character in the animated series).
Also, thanks to various narrative conceits, viewers will meet Aang’s predecessors, Avatar Roku (C. S. Lee), Avatar Kyoshi (Yvonne Chapman), and Avatar Kuruk (Meegwun Fairbrother). They will also encounter Ozai’s antecedent, Fire Lord Sozin (Hiro Kanagawa), the man who started the century-long conflict.
Additional cast includes Francois Chau, Lim Kay Siu, Casey Camp-Horinek, Rainbow Dickerson, Joel Montgrand, Joel Oulette, Nathaniel Arcand, Irene Bedard, Ryan Mah, Sebastian Amoruso, Randall Duk Kim, Lucian-River Chauhan, Ruy Iskandar, Taylor Lam Wright, Wes Valarao, Nathaniel Kong, Jeff Yung, Ciara Mandel, David Sakurai, Rohain Arora, Jayson Li, and Jon Ray Dy Buco.
(Photo by Noah Asanias)
Although DiMartino and Konietzko were initially involved as showrunners, they walked away in the summer of 2020 citing “creative differences” with Netflix. They will still receive story credit on the first and sixth episodes and are at the helm of additional animated projects in the original series’ universe.
In early 2021, Albert Kim emerged as their replacement. The Sleepy Hollow veteran admitted to the trepidation fans faced with his appointment, but said he looked forward to tackling the challenge of adapting the story and giving bending a more visceral feel. In a recent interview with EW, he revisited his initial thoughts when asked to take over the show: “My first reaction after ‘Hell yeah!’ was ‘Holy s—! Do I really want to do this? Is there a way to improve upon the original?’ Whenever you tackle something that’s already beloved by millions of fans, you have to ask yourself those questions.”
Additional executive producers include Dan Lin, Lindsey Liberatore, Michael Goi, and Roseanne Liang. The writing staff includes Kim, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Christine Boylan, Keely MacDonald, Gabriel Llanas, Audrey Wong Kennedy, Emily Kim & Hunter Ries.
Goi and Liang also directed episodes with Jabbar Raisani and Jet Wilkinson joining their tanks at the helm of two episodes apiece.
Other crew members include production designer Michael Wylie, directors of photography Michael Balfry, Stewart Whelan and Goi, costume designer Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh, and composer Takeshi Furukawa.
(Photo by ©Netflix)
The first season of eight hour-long episode debuts February 22, 2024 on Netflix. As with most shows on the service, it is unclear if it will continue. But Avatar: The Last Airbender is incredibly resilient and will appear in some form again even if this proves to be a one-off series.